The Farmer Diaries
Texas farmer divulges secret to endless supply of baby salad greens
Sometimes I lose sight of my goal to opt out of industrialized agriculture and grow my own food. Case in point: salad greens.
I can't think of an easier crop to grow, and I've grown them intermittently in the past. But I always fall out of the habit; buying tubs of baby greens at the grocery store is so easy. That's about to change.
Often called mesclun — French for "mix" — these small baby-lettuce mixes only take a few weeks to grow. They're best at their freshest: flavorful, crisp and nutritious. The days between picking, packing, transporting and purchasing store-bought greens degrade their quality. That's why growing your own is a good idea.
The when and how
This period from fall to spring is the perfect time. I grow mine in a greenhouse, but a patio or sunny windowsill is just as suitable. Salad greens can also thrive in shade or even under a bright fluorescent light indoors. What they cannot tolerate is heat, which makes them bitter.
To grow them, I reuse the clear plastic tubs in which store-bought greens are sold. This is common practice among home growers. The tubs are a handy size, lightweight, and the lid serves well for jump-starting germination. Punch a few small holes in the bottom tub for drainage, and it's ready.
For my growing medium, I use a light, spongy potting soil that's free of peat moss, such as Nature's Guide Organic Potting Soil. I fill the tub halfway with soil, and I add water to the soil before seeding, so the water doesn't wash all the seed to one side of the tub.
Over the moistened soil, I sprinkle seeds from a mesclun seed pack on the surface in a densely spaced pattern — about what I can pinch with five fingertips. No need to cover the seed; it will nestle into the soil as it lands.
Then I place the lid on top. This traps humidity in the tub and keeps the soil from drying out. I just prop the lid; I don't seal. That allows heat to escape when the sun shines on it. And here's a good tip: I place a sheet of paper over the top so that sunlight is indirect and does not cook the seed.
About three days later, a few seeds will have germinated. A day after that, most of the seeds will have sprung up from the soil and rolled out a pair of leaves. At this point, I remove the lid.
I continue to keep the soil moist but not soggy. While the greens are still little sprouts, I use a misting bottle to water the soil. Once the greens are about a week old and large enough not to be uprooted by a surge of water, I use a watering can.
When the greens have sent up a mature leaf — not the two leaves that appear right after germination and soon fall off — I fertilize by adding Medina's Hasta Gro liquid fertilizer to the water and continue a watering routine that keeps the soil moist.
Greens can't tolerate soggy soil, but they also need the soil to never dry out, so they must be checked often. Soon, the leaves will fill up the container and grow out the top; to do this requires quite a bit of water.
About three weeks after germination, the greens are ready to be harvested. Using scissors, I cut leaves off about an inch above the roots. They recover quickly and put out a whole new bunch of leaves.
I can harvest each tub twice, sometimes three times. Once the tubs have produced all that they can, the soil can be tossed into a bucket, cleaned of roots and used for another round of greens.
Seed companies such as Botanical Interests and the Cook's Garden have made growing mesclun an easy task by packaging mesclun seed mixes with special assortments of tangy greens, gourmet lettuce varieties and standard farmer's market blends. For those who prefer to mix their own, Johnny's Selected Seeds is the resource with the most lettuce varieties I've encountered.
I've created a timetable that should bring me a perpetual supply:
- Week 1: Plant first set of two tubs.
- Week 2: Plant second set of two tubs.
- Week 3: Plant third set of two tubs.
- Week 4: Harvest first set of tubs and replant.
- Week 5: Harvest second set of tubs and replant.
- Week 6: Harvest third set and replant.
By harvesting and replanting two tubs every week, I should have all the salad greens I want.
A tub of homegrown salad greens costs about 50 cents. A tub from the grocery store costs about $3.50. If my plans are successful, I'll not only enjoy salad greens at the height of quality, I'll also save close to $200 per year on groceries.